Ok, so Cairo isn’t so nitty gritty that one has to catch dinner in the backyard, but food IS very fresh and often comes much more intact than how we usually get it in the US. Take the chicken I cooked this evening for example: the neck in its entirety comes still attached and chicken necks are much longer than I ever imagined.
Now maybe this doesn’t seem as gruesome as some other ways that meat is presented in Egypt but it’s still annoying when neither I nor my husband eat the neck. Attempting to hack it off this afternoon proved much too nauseating for me so it stayed attached, and you will find me in the future recruiting Mr. MM for decapitation duty.
Getting food so fresh is wonderful; the eggs we buy are laid the morning we buy them. No kidding. Some come with feathers still clinging to the shells and are laid by free-range chickens. Lettuce, here, has a season for growing and when it’s not the season, like now, it’s almost impossible to find it and definitely impossible to find good stuff.
There’s three ways to buy meat here: supermarket meat section, frozen-packaged, or butcher shop. I recommend the butcher shop, but only if you know it and trust it. If you don’t have the assistance of Egyptian family/friends who know a good butcher then the next best choice is the supermarket meat section, I don’t like to buy there only because it’s slightly less fresh but a lot more expensive. Butcher shops were an odd sight to me when I first came to Egypt because many of them are open-air (which means lots of flies) and don’t really employ refrigeration and I couldn’t get over the idea of non-refrigerated meat. I was also completely creeped out by the sight of whole hanging animals and cows’ heads on platters. Apparently there is something about displaying the head that proves the animal was butchered in a halal manner, but I don’t know what it is.
Some of you may be as disgusted as I was by the thought of buying meat that’s been hanging out in the Egyptian heat all day but the fact of it is that the animals are butchered that very morning, or possibly even a few hours before you buy it. It’s like the eggs we buy: laid that morning and not refrigerated but definitely good. Another thing you will find is that some butchers will have small herds of goats and sheep hanging out in front or in back for you to pick your dinner from. Now that would be called fresh meat. Mom, know how you order your steak so rare its still mooing? Definitely possible in Egypt. It IS very important that you know and trust the butcher though, and you will find that butchers in better parts of Cairo, like Maadi for example, are often enclosed and air-conditioned. Rule of thumb: if you don’t know the butcher, and it looks dodgy, don’t buy there.
I haven’t lived only in Maadi, I lived for a little while in one of the slummier parts of Cairo called Warraq. In Warraq, late at night, the sheep owners (herders? shepherds?) allow their flock to graze the trash that’s strewn around the neighborhoods. That trash is a particularity of Warraq, which does not benefit from a garbage collector it is so poor, so don’t take this as an example of all of Cairo. It’s not something you would see in Maadi or Heliopolis or 6th of October for example. When I commented to Mr. MM about the garbage-grazing sheep, wondering if one of them might in the future end up on our family’s table (you are what you eat and so on) he assured me that his family does not buy from the butchers who use those animals, but only go to a butcher they know and is good. That’s just one, disgusting I know, example of why when in Egypt you should only buy from a butcher you know or has been recommended to you.
And as for the frozen-packaged meat you can buy from supermarkets like Metro, Carrefour, or Abou Zekry- DON’T. Just don’t. Butchers and supermarket meat sections are open and on display, meat factories are not and be assured that I do not trust what I can’t see for myself in Egypt. I learned this the hard way: strapped for time I had Mr. MM stop by the market to buy a package of minced meat (that would be Egyptian for ground beef for all of us Americans out there.) When he got home and I set about cooking it I found, horrifically, a whole moth (and I mean a moth bigger than my thumb) mixed in with the meat. If the moth got in there whole and un-minced, what may have gotten in and minced along with the meat? And what kind of meat was I cooking? Anyways, the whole lot went into the garbage and I won’t touch any packaged-meat with a ten-foot pole now.
A recap: butchers are good if you trust them, supermarket meat departments are clean and refrigerated but much more expensive, and pre-packaged meat is a no-no.
And while we’re on the subject of where to go and where not to go to eat: its tempting to stick to international fast-food chains while overseas but may not actually be the best option. I, myself, ate many times in Egyptian restaurants and even some less-than-sanitary koshari and fuul shops without a problem but managed to get food poisoning from a Burger King hamburger. I’m not the only one, I’ve chatted with at least two other foreigners who had the same thing happen to them with other fast food chains here in Cairo.
The best bet is to have trustworthy contacts who know the ins and outs of the city. I’m going to be posting a list of good places and bad places to eat in Egypt sometime in the future; especially on American restaurants here as I’m slightly obsessed with finding food that tastes like home.